When the New York Yankees signed Aroldis Chapman to a five-year, $86 million contract this offseason, many viewed it as a win-win.
Almost exactly one year prior, General Manager Brian Cashman pulled off a blockbuster move with the Cincinnati Reds to acquire The Cuban Missile. Chapman — who was largely considered the top closer in baseball — was in the midst of domestic dispute allegations, severely limiting his market. The Yankees decided to strike, as they acquired his services — and an eventual 30-day suspension — for four low-level prospects.
But when the organization decided to wave the white flag on the 2016 season, Chapman was the first to go. Cashman was able to parlay a 2.01 ERA and 12 strikeouts per nine innings for a package that includes their best young talent in Gleyber Torres, one of their top relievers in Adam Warren and prospects Billy McKinney and Rashad Crawford.
There was a league-wide assumption that the Yankees remained atop Chapman’s free agent wish list. He didn’t do a great job of hiding it, either. In a farewell Instagram post after the trade, Chapman ended the caption with, “#newyorkyankees bye for now.”
When the Yankees made the flamethrower the richest free agent in his position’s history, the joy was obvious.
But it hasn’t taken long for the adoration to wear off.
Chapman can be described with one word in the first year of his lucrative deal: inconsistent.
He posted a 0.96 ERA in April and converted all five of his save opportunities. In May, opponents were batting .353 against him. Between June and July, Chapman compiled 23 strikeouts in just 17.1 innings pitched. But in August, he’s completely lost the plate and has given up two big home runs to two youngsters who have made their MLB debuts just weeks prior.
On one hand, many believe this is just another hiccup with Chapman. He’s still throwing fastballs over 100 MPH on a consistent basis and has flashed signs of dominance as recently as one week ago.
But on the other hand, the problem with paying Chapman a lot of money for a lot of years was evident well before both sides wrote their names on the dotted line.
When the Chicago Cubs traded for Chapman, they knew he was simply a rental — and Joe Maddon used him that way. That was never more apparent than in the postseason. By the time the World Series rolled around, Chapman was pitching on fumes, barely throwing his fastball and instead settling with his subpar slider. The image of the 29-year-old vigorously rubbing his pitching arm after pitching in five of the seven games sticks out to this day.
That should’ve been exhibit A as to why the Yankees shouldn’t offer five years and $86 million. He showed signs of a diminished product. Chapman’s shoulder issues persisted into this season, as he’s missed over a month of this season due to inflammation in his rotator cuff.
In addition to last year’s usage, it’s Chapman’s physical and mental makeup that can also turn this contract from sweet to sour.
As Chapman inches towards his 30th birthday, the velocity of a Major League fastball increases. His pitch that touches 105 MPH is still the fastest in the game — but as hitters face pitchers with higher velocity on a regular basis, Chapman will be easier to hit. He’ll have to develop his secondary stuff, something he’s struggled with.
And the mental part is just as big of a factor.
Michael Kay — the Yankees lead broadcaster and host of his own ESPN radio show — stated last Wednesday that he’s spoken to people within the Reds organization in the past who have stated Chapman won’t be the pitcher he is unless he’s the closer. That may handcuff the Yankees, as the southpaw was recently demoted from his ninth inning role and will be used in lower-leverage situations.
To his credit, Chapman has dispelled that notion, telling the New York Daily News, “I’m here to pitch,” he said. “As far as where I pitch, that’s not up to me. If at some point they need to remove me from the closer position, I’m always going to be ready and willing to pitch here.” And in his first game as an everyday reliever, he allowed just one walk while striking out two in 1.1 innings.
Yankees fans are spoiled. They were able to experience Mariano Rivera — not so arguably the greatest closer of all-time — finish games for nearly 20 years. No one expected Chapman to be the next Rivera. But they do hope he can be their shutdown closer during the potential dynasty that’s on the horizon.
Can it be fatigue? Who knows? Maybe Chapman needs this year to recover from his time with the Cubs. But in New York, patience is not a virtue.
And if the Yankees want to compete earlier than expected, Chapman needs to right his ship.
Dan Federico is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.